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Māori collective values and economic prosperity.
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Maori collective values and economic prosperity.
Dr Rawiri Taonui
Professor of Maori and Indigenous Studies
Massey University


Dr Rawiri Taonui: Late last year, the Motu - Economic and Public Policy Research Trust paper Indigenous Belief in a Just World: NZ Maori and other Ethnicities Compared (reported in the Herald 23 September 2015) arguing that because Maori collectivist values were like those of other indigenous, African American and Chinese belief systems they were undermining of Maori economic success.

Historical Issues

The Motu paper is ahistorical and culturally narrow. Motu asks us to accept that economic performance relates only to belief systems. The fact is that for a very long period the cumulative intergenerational impacts of colonisation, land loss, cultural suppression, forced impoverishment and institutional racism negatively impacted the potential of Maori values to generate economic enterprise.

Prior to the late 1850s, the point at which colonisation gained full flight as Europeans demographically swamped Maori, both Maori collectivism and its economy were strong. Maori dominated agricultural production owning and operating the first flourmills and farms. European settlements and towns depended upon Maori produce and industry. Maori were also major players in coastal shipping; some even plying their trade as far as Australia, South Africa and South America.

From this point forward Maori collectivism and its economy were subject to a series of thinly disguised rhetorical and legal attacks ostensibly to civilise Maori but in reality to marginalise them and wrest control of their lands and other natural assets. The first, from William Richmond, introduced the Native Territorial Rights Bill (1858), to individualise Maori land title by extinguishing the “beastly communism” of Maori he claimed caused their communities to be awash with “waste, filth, and moral contamination”.

Vetoed by the British Colonial Office as a blatant land grab, the issue was revisited in the Native Henry Sewell sponsored Native Land Acts (1862 & 1865). Sewell advocated to “detribalise” and thereby destroy Maori “communism”. One time Premier Frederick Whitaker, echoing Richmond’s disgust of “beastly communism”, argued this was the main barrier to assimilating Maori into European society. More candidly, Sewell declared the aim was to deliver “the great bulk” of North Island Maori land to European settlers.

Three decades later, Premier Richard Seddon, vowed to dismantle the “communism” he said caused Maori to be “lazy and dissolute” and resist the sale of remaining lands.

Having lost 90 per cent of their lands during this period, the Maori economy collapsed. Thus was provided the platform upon which was built the greater historical economic success of Europeans in New Zealand Motu so applauds. No matter how individually industrious or ingenious European entrepreneurs were their success rested on the unfair taking of land and suppression of Maori collectivism.

The Motu paper also fails to take account of the conjoint Maori cultural renaissance and strong post-settlement Maori economy. Te reo Maori is an official language; there is a revival in the arts and research in almost all facets of Maori life. Simultaneously, the Maori asset base reached $42.6 billion in 2013. Maori producers contributed $11 billion (5.6%) to New Zealand’s GDP or value added production.

Some will assume that such capital comes from Treaty settlements. However, less than one third, $12.5 billion is from Maori trusts, incorporations and other entities, such as runanga. This is not to say Treaty settlements have not performed. They have; the collective identity of Tainui and Ngai Tahu has never been stronger than over the last two decades where each has grown assets of $170 million to nearly $1 billion. Collectivist beliefs like kotahitanga (unity) and whanaungatanga (kinship) are key fulcrums of their success. In a similar display of entrepreneurial skill another $23.4 billion comes from Maori owned companies and $6.6 billion from self-employed Maori.

Cultural Issues

The principle cultural fault of the Motu stems from a reliance on the World Values Survey the centre-piece of which is a Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel designed ‘World Cultural Map’. This map has an internal bias extolling Western Protestant capitalist beliefs over other cultures - indigenous, black, brown, Asian and Catholic.

Employing the paradigm to any indigenous or brown culture is inevitably a pre-determined self-fulfilling exercise in cultural superiority. For example, Motu categorises Maori values along a Western continuum of left or right wing rather than on their own terms such as through readily available Maori organisation strategic statements and reports emphasising balancing customary heritage, unity and self-determination with economic prosperity and intergenerational wealth creation for future generations.

At an international level, it compares Maori with Other cultures, including African American and Chinese. Neither are indigenous peoples as the title of the paper purports. The only linkage is that they are brown and non-European.

This does not properly contextualise Maori values within the indigenous paradigm preambled in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) and the now prolific literature valuing traditional indigenous belief systems with respect to sustainable development.

The Motu paper is disjunctive with the Economist 2050 Report (2012), which predicts that brown or non-West European countries from Asia, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe will comprise 27 of the 40 fastest growing economies in the world by 2050.

Rather poorly the report suggests that Treaty settlements might work better if issued as individual shares. The notorious 1960s Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which did award individual shares, failed because the shares eventually fell into the hands of private individuals and corporations leaving the original recipients largely destitute.

In the super diversity of our new world, one would hope that academic researchers could work collectively with other cultures to get things right. Truly this is the key to a just world.

Motu paper available at:

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